Harman Kardon's Invoke is a pretty good speaker, and Microsoft's Cortana is a pretty good digital assistant. Put them together and you have a smart speaker that costs as much, but doesn't sound as good--and isn't as smart--as the brand-new Sonos One, powered by Amazon's Alexa. The Invoke's cylindrical form factor looks slightly less like a peppermill than the original Echo, and its flared bottom make it less susceptible to falling over. You'll find all kinds of Echo accessories designed to keep the Echo upright, or to protect it from damage if it gets toppled. Like Amazon's Echo, the Invoke has a volume-control ring circling its top.
Harman Kardon's Invoke speaker, debuting Thursday for $199.95, may end up following in the footsteps of notable Microsoft-powered devices like Nokia's Windows phones: lovely hardware that's slightly tripped up by Microsoft's software and services. The soul of Harman's elegant, cylindrical smart speaker is Cortana, the digital assistant that lives within Windows 10. Cortana deftly steps in during the business day to manage reminders, answer questions about your schedule, reply to general queries about the weather, nearby restaurants, and place calls via Skype. After hours, she's your personal DJ, playing back audio with some serious boom. She also serves as the majordomo for your digital home.
Sonos has multi-room audio down to a science, but it desperately needed a speaker capable of voice recognition if it was to fend off the veritable flood of smart speakers coming to market. The Sonos One is that speaker. It sounds better than the last entry-level Sonos speaker, it's compatible with Amazon's Alexa digital assistant, and it will be compatible with Google Assistant soon. It's a great speaker for the price, and it's a must-have component for music lovers living in modern smart homes. If you already have Sonos speakers in other rooms, you can control all of them with voice commands with the addition of a single Sonos One to your network.
The Echo Show is not just Amazon's best smart speaker, it's the most capable mainstream smart home assistant on the market. An Intel Atom x5-Z8350 processor and a 7-inch color touchscreen pumps its price tag up to $230, but the display is worth the added cost to have at least one in a smart home with other Echo speakers. And the Show's eight-element far-field mic array is stronger than the ones on Amazon's other Echos, which for me eliminated the need to have an Echo Dot in an adjoining room. Amazon takes full advantage of that display, providing not just useful visual feedback, but also an in-home intercom--with video, if two Echo Shows are used--and a VoIP-type videophone system. I'll elaborate on the intercom feature shortly.
You'll want the Google Pixel 2 XL if you're looking for the purest, most elegant Android experience possible in a 6-inch phone. You'll want the Pixel 2 XL if you're looking for a stunning display with an 18:9 aspect ratio, amazing portrait photography, and a ton of surprise-and-delight features made possible by Google Lens and the rest of Google's A.I. tool chest. When the Pixel 2 XL was announced on Oct. 4, Google reminded us that its machine learning engine is watching our every move to improve its A.I. algorithms. So, yes, the Pixel 2 XL's ever-Googley magic tricks may keep robophobes up at night. But it's an incredible phone that grafts device experiences to life experience in simple, intuitive, and smile-provoking ways.
We constantly test all the latest devices, including Roku players, Fire TV devices, Android TV devices, Apple TV, and Chromecast. Compared to other 4K HDR streaming devices such as the Xiaomi Mi Box and Chromecast Ultra, the Roku Premiere ($100) supports more sources of 4K and 4K HDR content. If you're willing to spend a little more, the $130 Roku Ultra adds voice search, USB storage, and a remote-finding feature, but it's not a must-have upgrade. Ecosystem tie-ins: Apple apps and services are only available through Apple TV, while Fire TV devices are the most convenient way to watch Amazon Prime video, and Google's video and music services are generally best-accessed via Chromecast or Android TV.
The company's popular set-top boxes and sticks never included TV volume or power controls, so you typically had to keep another remote handy or buy a universal remote. With or without 4K HDR, the biggest improvement to the new Roku Streaming Sticks is in their remotes, which now include volume buttons and a power button for TV controls. Being able to quickly look up specific movies or shows by name is helpful--and Roku's latest software brings some new features, such as genre search and filtering by streaming service--but Roku's voice search is still far behind other platforms in several ways. Beyond just technical issues, Roku doesn't support the kinds of sophisticated queries that Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Android TV do.
But I encountered a significant difference using Google Home devices to control my Vivint Smart Home system compared to Amazon's Echo. When I say "OK Google, turn on my kitchen lights," the Google Assistant responds "OK, here's Vivint." He said if Vivint were to choose the other method, which would allow the Google Assistant to control the home more directly, Vivint would need to allow Google to access the state of the home on a full-time basis. I was told it explains how Google's smart home API works for third parties that integrate directly.
It might not bring anything to the table that you don't get with the far-less-expensive Chromecast Ultra, Roku Streaming Stick Plus, or Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD, but Apple's elegant simplicity, ease of use, and iTunes advantage are all on full display here. Apple TV 4K adds a gigabit ethernet port but removes the USB-C diagnostic port (which was great for taking screenshots). Apple TV 4K supports the same Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 surround sound as the non-4K Apple TV, which means it won't sound quite as good as some of its peers. Apple told The Verge that it will be adding support in a future update, but that doesn't make it any less of an unfortunate limitation, especially since Roku's Streaming Stick Plus and Amazon's Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD both support it.
Google Home Mini will put Google Assistant in every room of your house. It's not about specs (although the Pixel phones have really good ones) or design (although the Google Home Max will look good in any room). There's the impulse-buy Google Home Mini and the high-fidelity Max to put Assistant in every room of your house. Like HomePod, Google Home Max uses machine learning to analyze your space to deliver optimal sound, but Google's method gets more granular and fine-tunes the sound based on the song you're listening to as well as adjusting based on Max's surroundings.